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James Burnham & Max Shachtman

Intellectuals in Retreat

IV: What To Do?

AN ANALYSIS OF THE POSITION of the radical intellectuals would be incomplete without tracing the social causes of the movement we have been discussing. In turn, an understanding of the causes is a prerequisite to a correction of the tendency to which they have yielded and a return to the position which will enable them to make their authentic and positive contribution to the revolutionary class struggle.

The main sociological cause of this movement is to be found in the long list of defeats suffered by the revolution in Europe and Asia, and the failure of the revolutionary movement here to grow rapidly enough to cope adequately with its great problems. It is obvious, also, that the Russian Revolution, which had such a powerful effect in restoring revolutionary Marxism to its rightful place in the ranks of the working class movement as well as among the radical intellectuals, had the contrary effect in the period of its degeneration under Stalinism.

The revolutionary socialists, however, could not and cannot see in any of these developments a reason for abandoning Marxism. Quite the contrary. Marxism was verified not only on the triumph of the October Revolution but also negatively in the defeats and decay that followed. Who other than those who applied the methods of Marxism to the realities of the class struggle were able to predict the setbacks suffered by the world proletariat, to explain the phenomena of the revolutionary ebb and the rise of fascism, to outline the only policy that would enable the proletariat to turn the tide of defeat into an irresistible wave of victory? The Marxists did not require the post hoc elucubrations now dished up on “one-party dictatorship” in order to explain the causes of the revolution’s degeneration. As early as 1906, in a fundamental way, the Marxist Trotsky already analyzed the danger of reaction inherent in a revolution confined to a single country. From 1917 onward, Lenin, Trotsky and all the other Bolsheviks repeated “a thousand times” that without the world revolution the Soviet republic would succumb to counter-revolutionary forces. Beginning with 1923, the Trotskyist Opposition, basing itself upon a political analysis which has never been excelled or even matched, launched the struggle against the Thermidorean degeneration of the Soviet power and the Communist International. Every important event in the last twenty years has only emphasized the irreplaceability of revolutionary Marxism as an instrument of analysis and a weapon of struggle for social emancipation.

Every period of reaction that follows a revolutionary defeat produces a variety of superficial and transient “new” and “stylish” doctrines, which eschew Marxism as “outlived.” It would be instructive to compare the history of the “factional struggles” following the defeat of the Russian revolution of 1905 with their analogues of the last decade or more. It is the present reactionary moods of depression, discouragement, loss of confidence in the recuperative powers of the proletariat and its revolutionary movement, which are rationalized into the widespread attacks against revolutionary Marxism. The radical intellectuals, by the very nature of their social position, are generally the first to yield to these moods, to capitulate to them instead of resisting them deliberately. In an entirely different degree, to be sure, they are as much the victims of our prolonged period of reaction as the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the temporary rise of fascism are its products.

The main intellectual disease from which these intellectuals suffer may be called Stalinophobia, or vulgar anti-Stalinism. The malady was superinduced by the universal revulsion against Stalin’s macabre system of frameups and purges. And the result has been that most of the writing done on the subject since then has been less a product of cold social analysis than of mental shock, and where there is analysis, it is moral rather than scientific or political.

It is interesting to note in this connection that virtually all our subjects have for years taken us to task for what they considered bur exclusive preoccupation with the fight against Stalinism, “Why don’t you ever attack anybody or anything besides Stalinism?” they used to complain. If we were not deeply stirred by their criticisms then, it was because they were based on a misapprehension of our fundamental position. Now times have changed to the point where the roles seem to be shifted; but in a very peculiar way. There is hardly an article written by our critics, or a speech delivered, without the fiercest attacks on Stalinism which they increasingly and undiscriminatingly identify with revolutionary Marxism. Their vulgar anti-Stalinism consists in this: they condemn Stalinism in reality for precisely those policies which – and this is what the critics of Bolshevism do not realize! – have brought it steadily closer to the fundamental policies of social reformism and bourgeois democracy; and at the same time they have adopted a conciliatory attitude towards reformism and democracy. They abstract Stalinism out of its concrete historical context, its relation to declining world imperialism. Thus their opposition is opportunistic, since it is divorced from the basic struggle against imperialism itself. This leads them into the most peculiar combination with people who profess some sort of “anti-Stalinism” even when they represent views no less reactionary than Stalin’s.

The “Trotskyist” movement was insured against such a conciliatory attitude by the objective political position it adopted from the very beginning. It began the struggle against the Soviet Thermidoreans fifteen years ago not on the grounds that they were the legitimate heirs of Leninism, but because they were a bastard product; and it always related this struggle to the general fight against imperialistm and for world socialism. The struggle against Stalinism was launched, Trotsky insisted, because it represented a capitulation to social democracy, because it was the channel through which flowed the forces of capitalist restoration. The policy of the Second International is the policy of surrender to the bourgeoisie. Stalinism differs from that policy in no important particular. The methods by which Stalinism rules were not invented by it: it copied them from the bourgeoisie and the social democracy – frameups, massacres of revolutionists and all the rest of it, merely giving to these methods a more totalitarian character. If the political genealogy of Stalinism were to be honestly established, it would be found that while it is neither the son of Leninism nor the brother of fascism, it is the totalitarian offspring of the bourgeois and social democracies.

Once this is understood, the struggle against Stalinism assumes a solid and objective political character. It can be conducted progressively only from the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism. It is in this way that anti-Stalinism acquires a positive significance, and is prevented from being vulgarized to the point of reconciliation with reformism and bourgeois democracy. (We dismiss entirely that brand of “anti-Stalinism” which leads to, or is only a cloak for, complete retirement from the struggle.)

For a Reorientation

OUR AIM IN WRITING this article is not to abuse or disparage our critics among the radical intellectuals, but to address ourselves seriously (even if sharply!) to the problems they themselves have raised. As Max Eastman has observed, this is indeed “a time for deliberation”. But would it not be well for these intellectuals and those who incline towards their ideas to ask themselves: In what direction are we traveling? Eastman has already announced that his deliberations will take place in retirement. Harrison has already proclaimed his conversion to social democracy. Others have already taken steps in their direction. The deliberate purpose of our article is, by presenting sufficiently convincing arguments, to stop their further drift towards an anti-Marxist position and to bring about a change of direction.

We are intransigently hostile to the attitude of the Stalinists towards the intellectual fellow-travelers of the working class; it is repugnant to a revolutionist. The combination of flattery, bribery and intimidation with which they keep “their” intellectuals “in line”, that is not our method. We do not demand of the writer that his creative work – under penalty of being denounced as worthless – be imbued with the philosophy of dialectic materialism, for we believe with Lenin that a work of art can be great and of value to the working class even if it is “imbued” with an idealistic philosophy, or for that matter without any systematic philosophy whatever. We do not demand of the singer that his poems be written in line with the latest or the last-but-latest turn in party policy. Towards the intellectual we have neither the contemptuous attitude expressed in “Stick to your last and keep your nose out of politics”, nor the desire to buy his praise of our party and its policies (or its Leaders!) in return for “official” party praise of his creative products.

The intellectual genuinely concerned with advancing the socialist movement has a multitude of opportunities to put his energy and talents at its service. There is the work or making possible continued life and activity of the revolutionary refugees from persecution; there is the work of defending the class war prisoners. There is above all the work of popularizing the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, if not among the proletariat, then at least among the now conservative or reformist-minded members of their own circles. And for those who are prepared to participate more actively and directly in the movement, who understand that without a consciously organized vanguard party the working class cannot win its war and consolidate its victory, there is membership in the world party of the social revolution – the Fourth International, which needs and welcomes serious intellectuals in its ranks. Such action is not proposed as a substitute for critical articles on no matter what fundamental question, for free and candid exchange of opinions, for the right to join in the discussion of every revolutionary problem. Not at all and just the contrary. It is only by such action that criticism and discussion acquire richness and reality and fruitfulness and purpose. Without it, they become common intellectual perambulations in midair, a spurious substitute for positive activity.

The intellectuals have also an autonomous and far from unimportant role to play in the cultural field. Entirely justified and necessary is a union of intellectuals – writers, scientists, philosophers, teachers – regardless of their divergent “factional” views, but only on the basis of specific and concrete action against specific abuses, of which there are a growing number under “democracy” to say nothing of the totalitarian regimes (Teacher’s Oaths, censorship, sabotage of publication, reactionary intolerance in schools and universities, etc., etc.). Such alliances or united fronts have a positive and progressive significance, in contrast to the anti-Marxist “ideological” political unions typified by the League Against Totalitarianism.

What a contrast is presented to the latter by the international movement which André Breton and Diego Rivera have in their manifesto proposed to launch! They, too, call for an association of artists and intellectuals. While they do not propose that it be tied to a political party, they take just as firm and infinitely clearer a position against both fascist and Stalinist totalitarianism, but they also make the indispensable distinction between the two. They do not take a mouthful of hot potatoes when they are called upon to express themselves flatly on the question of bourgeois and social democracy, on the question of imperialist war, on the question of capitalism and socialism.

Why have not the radical intellectuals responded to their call which was prominently displayed in the Partisan Review? Is it perhaps because they object to the references to Freudianism? Or to some minor formulation? Or to the style? But those are scarcely of real importance. Rivera-Breton have explained that they consider the manifesto to be simply a draft. Obviously, what is important and decisive is the main line of thought and action which it proposes. That line, while boldly describing the sphere of freedom and independence which the artist and intellectual must take for themselves, is unambiguously revolutionary – not Stalinist, not social-democratic, not middle-class radicalism.

Is it possible that the reply to our question will be the one we have heard so often in the past? “The line is none too radical for me, you understand, but it will repulse ‘the others’ whom we want to win.” It is the answer of the psychologists and not of the revolutionists – and not of such good psychologists. The only way we, or anyone else, have learned to win people to a revolutionary position is by standing on that position. To start out by adopting or adapting yourself to the present (i.e., conservative) position of those you seek to win over – which is the alternative – means that you will win nobody over for the simple reason that you have already been won over yourself. The not at all imaginary quotation we have cited was the basis of the argument in the editorial board of the late Marxist Quarterly, which is one of the reasons why the adjective must now be affixed to it; it is heard often enough in the Partisan Review; it was not absent in the days of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky; it was the argument used to trap so many into going along (for a time) with the muddle known as the Keep America Out of War Committee.

But its shallowness is revealed by a single glance at the totality of those who employ it. Each of them uses it, with a vague toss of the head in the direction of those who “have to be won over”, so that all of them, taken together, finally end up by being less “radical” than each of them taken individually! Yet, united, and shedding their conservative rationalizations, they already represent a sufficiently imposing force which, together with those who would be immediately attracted to them, would bring to life in the United States such a movement as is outlined by Breton and Rivera.

IF THE “SUBJECTS” OF this article have been a group of radical intellectuals, the matters we have dealt with far exceed them in political importance, and only thereby make possible a justification of this essay’s length. The devastating crisis of capitalism is accompanied by a no less devastating crisis in the labor movement. Reflecting it is a turbulent discussion of proletarian principles, tactics, strategy, theory, ideology, history. Our article is a summary of the most important points in this discussion and a contribution to it in the form of a criticism of critics.

For us political criticism is worth the time spent on it only if it lays the basis for action. Action has positive significance for the socialist movement only if it is directed towards its historic goal. Not merely by doctrines handed down to us by those great minds which founded our movement, but by the endless variety of events which we have experienced in our own lifetime, the conviction has deepened in us that if the socialist revolution is not triumphant, society will end in self-destruction. And if the socialist revolution is to be realized by the working class, an indispensable prerequisite of this victory is the building up and consolidation of that party which stands on the program of revolutionary Marxism. The wisdom of man has supplied no effective substitute for it in the great struggle for freedom; the less effective, we see no reason for accepting. The confirmation which history has given this program gives us the right to call upon the revolutionary intellectuals as well as the class-conscious workers for support to the party which is its champion.



[Copies of the issue of The New International containing the above article will be sent to all the individuals against whom it polemizes, with an invitation to make any comments desired in coming issues of the magazine. – Ed.]

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Last updated: 29 February 2016